Now, playing catch-up, they’re being told to embrace all forms of social media with the credulity and verve of a toddler hoping to curry favor with a mall Santa; that they must integrate their operations with Facebook if they are to maximize traffic and effectively engage and build an online community.
There are lots of reasons why extreme Facebook integration is a bad idea. Yes, it ultimately imperils your traffic by making your site too dependent on the social graph’s good graces, and yes, the way Facebook collects data about its users is creepy and invasive, and yes, if you think about it, it makes no sense to forgo building a strong community that’s engaged with your site and cares about and participates in your initiatives in favor of grasping after a weak community that can be induced to spend two seconds “liking” your organization and having its news updates buried among the hundreds of other updates that come across every single day.
But, primarily, Facebook and news organizations have few common values, and news organizations that become too integrated risk losing the very things that made them vital.
Facebook and its peers are the companies on top right now. They may or may not fall and be replaced with other companies. It’s the model they represent that’s the real concern; the model that says, in the end, power ought to consolidate; that accessibility trumps utility; that, like the phoenix, precision will magically rise out of indiscriminate flames.
The open web could use a champion, and news organizations should be the ones to brandish that sword. Online news sites should become beacons for experimentation, conveners of authority; they should become spaces that foster the kind of perspective and expertise that Facebook circumscribes, and the collaboration that Facebook disallows. Theoretically, this would fortify both parties, and would help news organizations remake themselves into powerful alternative platforms for community-driven news.
Practically, what might this mean?
1. Give your users prominent space to substantively interact, express themselves, and participate in the genesis and dissemination of news. Include people in your reporting projects, and facilitate connections between those who would like to collaborate among themselves.
2. Comb the web for people experimenting with news—building databases or analytical tools, writing programs that might have some news application, pursuing one-off projects designed to last for the lifespan of the event they were was created to analyze and record. Promote these efforts. Critique them with an eye toward improving them. Integrate them into your own site and encourage the experimenters to use your site to disseminate their work.
3. Devote sections of your site to training users in news and computer literacy, which is key if we are to grow a generation of responsible digital citizens. Make yourself into a place where people can go to learn how to read and evaluate a news story; offer tutorials on computer programming. Give engaged citizens the tools to become articulate participants in any given discussion.
4. Encourage and cultivate productive dissent. Make it easy for people to explain what you’re doing wrong and how it could be done better; consider and respond to these critiques. Illuminate your internal workings in a way that a hundred-billion-dollar company would never illuminate its own.
At base, at their best, news organizations have always wanted to responsibly inform and thereby empower individuals to become assets to their communities. By turning their websites into hubs for collaboration, experimentation, education, and dissent, news organizations can extend their pursuit of that goal and advance a true vision for the future of social news.
At the f8 conference this September, Mark Zuckerberg called the changes that he introduced “an important next step to help tell the story of your life.” Helping people tell stories is a laudable goal, certainly, but what does it actually mean?
News organizations, for all their flaws, have always held high the notion of the story as a useful, powerful, sacred thing. Stories told thoughtfully and disseminated widely can and have changed the world. Mark Zuckerberg also wants to change the world—and the evidence indicates that he wants to change it into a blander, more homogeneous place, where people express themselves within limits and are reduced to their affinities and preferences; where stories double as market-research reports; where everybody knows something about one another; and where Facebook knows everything about everyone and uses that knowledge to enrich itself in manifold uncomfortable ways.